For a Q&A with the playwright, go here.
I ran into Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside of Tosca’s bar in San Francisco last New Year’s Eve, and he looked happy. “The book is out,” he said, “and it looks great. We’ve sent one on to the theatre. You should get it in a few days.” I wandered across the street to City Lights Book Store, the publishing house for a whole generation of West Coast writers, and there behind the glass next to Larry’s first book ventured as a publisher, Allen Ginsburg’s Howl, was Sam Shepard’s Fool for Love.
Somehow, a cycle seemed completed. I first read Howl as a teenager and student at the University of Chicago and was flattened. There was something unrelenting and dangerous about it, both in its rage and insight. I don’t think I had ever seen such rage and insight in such equal proportions. For me, Howl marked the ’6Os, and convinceed me that the future was on the West Coast.
Twenty years later, Fool for Love had the same effect, and now here they were, side by side behind the glass, convincing me in the ’80s that the more things changed, the more they stayed the same.
On the cover of Fool for Love was the same image we had used for the poster at the Magic Theatre when the play first opened. On a glossy background and filling the cover page, in a dark jacket and perfectly coiffed conk, was Elvis Presley in an early ’57 photo. Tight in on him, nose to nose, her bare shoulder slightly pressed forward in anticipation, with a slightly skewed bouffant and a diamond broach earring, was a beautiful unidentified blond. And what was joining the two figures, in the space between their faces, catching a little light and subtly glistening? Why, their tongues!
Believe it or not, when the show went from Magic Theatre to Circle Repertory Company in New York, and the image was again used on the poster, several shops refused to sell it, although The New York Times had no problem printing the image, and where the poster was unavailable in Manhattan, people wanted it.
As early as 1970, we were doing Sam Shepard’s work at the Magic Theatre. The first play we did was La Turista. Nagle Jackson, over from American Conservatory Theater, directed, and I played Kent. I saw Shepard briefly in 1968, when Antonioni was passing through Berkeley filming Zabriskie Point, but never really met him until 1974, when he had returned from England and decided to move to Northern California. We were introduced by playwright Michael McClure at his house in a very gracious and casual atmosphere, and in short order decided to get going on some work. The timing was right. I had just moved the theatre from Berkeley to San Francisco, and our initial plan was that we each—Sam, Michael and 1—would bring projects to the theatre and do them. I was hot to do Tooth of Crime, which was then tearing up London and a few of the American regional reps. Sam, of course, had other ideas, and we wound up doing Action and Killer’s Head with him directing.
Over the next nine years and some 14 productions, a pattern developed. Sam would work on a play and show it to me when it was “ready.” That didn’t mean that it was necessarily “finished.” There was never any hard schedule for completion. Sometimes there would be as many as two plays within a year (True West, Buried Child), sometimes nothing for a few years. Sometimes a project would come up, such as those involving Joseph Chaikin (Tongues, Savage/Love), or an ensemble piece (Inacoma); on rare occasions, a revival, such as Curse of the Starving Class. Most of the conversations we had that had any substance were in bars or over pool tables. Just before Fool popped up, Sam was on a “red haired people from Texas” kick. He seemed very much interested in Texas history at the time. I assumed he was working on a period piece and let it go at that.
I suppose I finally saw about the 11th draft of Fool. This was unusual, but a lot of things were happening at the time. One of them was the film The Right Stuff. Phil Kaufman, with whom I had school ties, had convinced Sam to consider playing Chuck Yeager. Sam and Chuck hit if off; the deal was closed. I finagled a small role. (I’m the one running after Shepard near the top of the film yelling, “Chuck, Chuck, we want you to fly all of our planes.”) In all, 22 actors from the Magic Theatre were in the film.
Anyway, the draft I finally saw had Eddie, Mae and Martin in it but not the “princess.” This was odd to me, because we had auditioned about a hundred actresses for the part of the “princess,” script unseen. This draft, draft 11, also didn’t have “the old man” in it, but the story was essentially there. I was convinced it would play like gangbusters, but it somehow seemed “square.” (I don’t mean the attitude, I mean the shape.) It was pretty linear, unusual for Sam, and I remarked on it. “Maybe it needs a three-quarter circle surrounding three points of the square,” I said. Three weeks later, we had the completed script, with “the old man.”
We found two actors from a revival of Curse of the Starving Class that I had directed, Will Marchetti and Kathy Baker. I had been dogging Will for years to work with Sam, and Kathy had done about six roles at the theatre. Sam brought in Dennis Ludlow, a fine actor who he liked working with, and Eddie Harris, who he found in a production of True West in L.A.
Rehearsals started. An approximation of my “dramaturgy”:
John: Well, it’s not True West.
Sam: So what? True West was True West; this is Fool for Love.
John: How come the gun doesn’t go off?
Sam: Why should the gun go off?
John: You know, the gun introduced in the first act goes off in the second.
Sam: First, it only has one act. Second, the gun’s just there because he wants to impress her. The saddle, the lasso, the gun, the booze, he’s just trying to impress her.
John: Oh…. You’re sure it’s not starting too high? They’re sweating like pigs up there. You don’t want to blow its cool too early.
Sam: Why shouldn’t it start high? Plays never start high. Why shouldn’t it start at its highest point?
John: Shouldn’t the bathroom door be a brighter yellow?
Sam: I’m waiting for the lights. We need speakers under the audience.
Sam: Four of them. I want to wire the walls of the set for reverb.
John: What is this? Sensurround? Impossible.
(We wire the walls for sound and put four speakers under the audience.)
Now the book has arrived at the theatre in the mail and I’m paging through it. I’m amazed. This isn’t a script! This is neat, compact, projecting the apparently effortless flow of relentless logic. This is “language made strange.” This has content. This is literature! How far from the mass of crossed out paragraphs, rewrites scribbled over rewrites, entire sections thrown out only to come back barely recognizable in their new form, masses of cue notes, transpositions, endless word changes, and all the other seeming chaos that goes into the development of a new script. Really, the only thing that seems the same to me now is the picture of Elvis, and the connection is there for me again.
Something in the career of Elvis informs Sam Shepard and Fool for Love. Perhaps the sheer weight of animal spirits, the flagging optimism over the ramifications of the American dream, the passion that is barely kept in bounds, the lurking undercurrent of violence and destruction, the ghost of the family with its grotesque eccentrics and its dark secrets, the siren song of booze and the open road. But there is much more. Elvis Presley and Sam Shepard signify a change in the structure of American society that cuts much deeper than critical catch phrases like “the birth of rock and roll” or the “death of the American West.”
To both Presley and Shepard is attached the idea of “the noble savage.” They both apparently came from nowhere, reached the top of their professions with no formal training, rapidly became the stuff of popular myth. But beneath each persona lies an objective, calculating artist who has basically altered the way we look at things.
Unfortunately, we Americans like to think of our artists this way, appearing as they often do to us as sort of inspired flower children or imaginative iconoclasts who are floating through the tree tops dreaming their little other-worldly dreams and keeping us pleased and entertained. The simple unassailable truth is that there is no country in the world that places so little value on the enormously difficult and draining process that actually goes into creating the authentic work of art.
The rise of Sam Shepard to the forefront of American drama and to the middle ranks of acknowledged world masters is not without its ironies; like love, the course of true drama never runs smooth. He has been the object of adulation of the new criticism (that is, loosely, critical strategies since the introduction of Levi-Strauss’ structuralism in the late ’50s) and numbers among his defenders Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Ruby Cohn and a host of lesser critical lights. On the other hand, he is the scourge of such luminaries as Walter Kerr (“a mere cult figure”), Tennessee Williams (“I wouldn’t cross the street to see a Sam Shepard play”), and more recently and succinctly, Mimi Kramer in the October issue of The New Criterion, a leading conservative art journal.
Complicating all this is Shepard’s commitment, at least in matters of literary or dramatic debate, to remain completely removed, apparently comfortable in his role as cipher. In his rare interviews he will talk about process, never product, and in such a seemingly offhand way that one leaves the conversation feeling that there’s been a sort of fireside chat. About what? The background of a farmboy turned horseman? The people, places and things that make this country such a cornucopia of interesting detail? The nature of existence?
Finally, it is the very span of Shepard’s thought that demands our engagement. The fact is that even in so-called casual conversation, he gets across to us on several levels at once. The ground of discourse is ever-changing, ever-provocative, which makes Shepard, at least in terms of personality, the inkblot of the ’8Os.
Of all the objections to Shepard, Kramer’s attack demands the most attention. Where Kerr conveniently, and with a characteristic lack of reasoned argument, dismisses Shepard, and Williams’ final jibe is predictably emotional, Kramer’s attack is sly, swift, and steeped in critical theory. Her strength is that she attacks Shepard by way of some of his more undisciplined and overenthusiastic supporters, principally Bonnie Marranca, editor of Performing Arts Journal’s collection of essays on Shepard, American Dreams (1981). Marranca is young and energetic and very bright—but her approach, while provocative, is basically collage. In the spirit of identification and enthusiasm, Marranca has written a piece called “Alphabetical Shepard, the Play of Words,” a sort of A-to-Z romp through the 40-or-so plays at her disposal, which touches on, but does not begin to encompass, the critical approach of Barthes, Iser, Levi-Strauss, Frye, Lacan, et al.
Kramer’s strategy is to place the burden of proof on Shepard’s supporters, pointing out correctly that “nowhere in the book. . . is there a single word why Shepard merits all this attention.” But Kramer is not to be let off the hook so easily. While attack ing True West as a “sit-com,” she displays a total ignorance of the whole of Shepard’s middle period (basically, all the plays from 1967 to 1980). She concentrates on the early “excesses” without granting Shepard the courtesy of normal growth as an artist, and in her attack on the book she reveals a critical outlook that places her somewhere in the 19th century. By Mimi Kramer’s standards, much of drama since Ibsen would be disqualified as “meaningful” art. Because she is after “meaning” in this inclusionary sense, and demands of art that it conform to Ethics and Morals as they are understood as part of the strivings of a “good life,” she has inherent abhorrance for any school of criticism which implies that “taste,” as a species of highly evolved intuition, is a starting point for looking at a work of art as an already integrated whole.
Shepard, like Elvis in his early musical material, is writing from a point of view in which the glue of the Judeo-Christian ethic has come undone. He doesn’t assume this point of view consciously, of course, nor is it particularly new; the absurdists, among others, were there before him. But he was the first American playwright to find himself in the “cracks” as they appeared in this country’s culture; and his response was far more subversive than that of, say, Albee or Kopit, who used the European method of showing us the absurdity, a la Beckett, lonesco or Pinter.
Shepard presented a world which seems on the surface to make sense in the traditional Western (read “Occidental”) way, but on closer examination is seen to use the logic that we associate with realism and naturalism to show us that the world doesn’t make sense, can never make sense, will never make sense. Shepard did not “deconstruct” personality as some would claim—he was a deconstructed personality. When he finally turns to an approximation of realism in his later writing, he fascinates because we see that the “characters” he writes, while appearing whole, are actually fragmented, a succession of masks, and, omigod, they are us.
Despite this breakdown of Western sensibility, and despite the strain of violence, almost impossibly, Shepard presents his drama with humor and a basic good will. This is because Shepard writes about people we all know, and, as Americans, are comfortable and familiar with. And he writes about what we think, but don’t say, what we want to do, but don’t do, and what we desire, but don’t get.
In the end, Shepard will survive both the new criticism and the traditionalists, for the simple reason that all first-class writing has the continuing ability to exhaust criticism. If references are now made to Fool for Love as a modem Phaedre, or Curse of the Starving Class as “an American Cherry Orchard,” so be it. But Fool for Love is as different from Phaedre as Phaedre is from Hippolytus, and Curse of the Starving Class is as different from The Cherry Orchard as The Cherry Orchard is different from Oblomov. The one thing they all have in common is the bedrock of myth.
A culture’s relation to its own myths is like the child’s relation to the parents; when the parent goes away, as he or she eventually must, the child finds a substitute, and this substitute is endlessly replicated in weaker and weaker proportion. Finally, the memory becomes an empty icon, unable to fulfill the real demands of myth.
But myth is all we have. Even Beckett in his darkest moments is dealing with some dimension of the possibility of Christian redemption. Sure, the American myths are “dead,” but they are what we cling to.
So when we send our rockets to the next civilization in space, let’s include a few of the genuine artifacts of our age. Fool for Love. “Jailhouse Rock.” And throw in Howl. Rock and Roll Jesus with a Cowboy Mouth.
John Lion is artistic director of San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, where Sam Shepard’s plays have premiered since 1970.